Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // To The Point // 4TP2

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Accepting the Challenge


Kenneth R. Bolen
Dean and Director
Cooperative Extension
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Internet address: coex005@unlvm.bitnet

Boyle and Mulcahy challenge the Cooperative Extension System to respond to the need for public policy education. I agree that Cooperative Extension should be more aggressive in public issues education. Although Boyle and Mulcahy use public policy and public issues education interchangeably, I believe there's a difference in how issues are addressed. Solutions to public policy issues generally reside with the public sector, but with public issues education, the private sector may also provide the solution.

As we approach the 21st century, we need to reflect on what we've learned from the past but clearly focus on the future. From our beginning in 1914, and for several decades, we focused on agrarian issues and our target audiences were primarily farmers, ranchers, homemakers, and youth in rural areas. As the demographics changed, we continued our focus on rural America, but also expanded our clientele base to include programs targeted to agribusiness and urban audiences. How should Cooperative Extension adjust programming for the next few years as we prepare to enter the 21st century?

Change should be continual in the Cooperative Extension System. Cooperative Extension experienced a major change in direction in 1987 as the organization moved to issues-based programming. The organization focused on identifying the critical issues of people and developing educational programs where we have a research base and can respond to these critical issues. The issues that we're addressing today such as water quality, youth and families at risk, waste management, food safety, and health care, generally require an interdisciplinary approach to respond to these complex issues.

Boyle and Mulcahy are on target as they challenge the Cooperative Extension System to focus on public policy issues.

How is public issues education different to Cooperative Extension programming of the past? It's quite different than providing a prescription recommendation such as how many pounds of chemical to apply per acre to control a crop pest. There can be more than one correct answer to questions that surface through issues. As people have different backgrounds, values, and beliefs, this may lead them to different conclusions and solutions. With public issues education, there may be strong views on different sides of the issue. I can remember quite vividly holding informational meetings in the 1970s to review the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a county zoning ordinance. Those of us involved in this Extension educational effort soon recognized that this type of a public policy program was quite different than the prescriptive recommendations we were more accustomed to providing to clientele.

I support the recommendation that the Cooperative Extension System accept public issues education as an important educational thrust. We must recognize that our audiences and markets are changing. We no longer have exclusive rights to research-based information and education. Industry has expanded with technical expertise to provide answers to many production questions that at one time would have been provided directly by Cooperative Extension. If industry and consultants can service a growing share of production-related questions, this provides Cooperative Extension with an opportunity to fill an educational void in other areas. Public issues education is one of those educational voids that needs our attention.

What are the implications for the Cooperative Extension System if we expand aggressively into public issues education? One important implication is the need for more staff inservice training. We must recognize that this type of programming is different and our staff may lack experience in handling controversial issues such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and environmental issues. The system will need to provide training to Cooperative Extension professionals to help them be effective.

Also, this type of programming can serve the public good. In the past, Cooperative Extension focused more on the private good of helping people help themselves. This type of programming could help decision makers understand the public benefit derived from public funding of the Cooperative Extension System.

Public issues education also provides the opportunity to establish linkages with many other agencies and organizations. The Cooperative Extension System has great networking capability. We also have the credibility of a neutral, objective approach that's needed with public issues education.

Let me close by suggesting that public issues education is important, but it's not a panacea. We shouldn't invest all our resources in this one educational thrust. Cooperative Extension System should address many needs. Relevant base programs and targeted high priority initiatives should continue to demand the attention of Extension professionals. Let's accept the challenge and move more aggressively into public issues education.